In 337 a.d., Roman patricians on
their way to Constantinople were shipwrecked along so
stunningly beautiful a coast that they understandably
decided to stay marooned and let war and empire pass
them by. Centuries hence, the 19th century Italian
writer, Renato Fucini, would say: "When the inhabitants
of Amalfi get to heaven on Judgment Day, it will be just
like any other day for them."
thereafter—in the turmoil following the dissolution of the Western Roman
Empire—Amalfi remained one of the small coastal
enclaves ruled nominally by the Byzantine Empire.
Finally, in 839, Amalfi was conquered by the Duchy of Benevento, itself a
Longobard holdout against Byzantium. Benevento was badly
in need of a port, and though there is little
documentation from that period, the fact that Benevento
bothered to take Amalfi at all may mean that the place
had already developed into a port of some importance.
Upon the death of the Duke, Amalfi freed itself from Benevento and went into business for itself. In 957, the head of Amalfi took the title of Duke, putting himself on an equal level with other rulers of the area. Little by little, the Amalfi fleet expanded and spread throughout the Mediterranean. Many places throughout the Mediterranean still have small churches to Saint Andrew, patron saint of Amalfi—churches built by Amalfi seafarers centuries ago. They established a strong presence in Antioch, and especially Constantinople, where they were the single greatest group of merchants in the commerce between East and West, taking an active political and economic role in the life of the Byzantine Empire. In Constantinople in the middle of the tenth century, there was an "Amalfi Quarter," replete with schools and stores. And in Jerusalem the Amalfitans founded the Order of the Knights, which later became the famous Order of Malta.
The height of the Maritime
Republic of Amalfi (see note at the end of this entry,
below) came at about the turn of the millennium, when
Amalfi was a great exporter of wood and iron, and
importer of spices, carpets, silk, and perfumes from the
Orient, goods that found a market in the Papal States to the north
and all the cities in the south of Italy. The cathedral
of Amalfi (photo, left) is from that period. It was
built in 1066 and still has the portals imported from
Constantinople (also see here).
Like the other maritime republics, Amalfi even coined
its own money, the Tarì. Also, Amalfi was where
the first Maritime
Code, the so-called tavole amalfitane, was formulated, a code
that regulated maritime trade in the Mediterranean from
the 1000s to the 1500s and that served as a model
for future maritime law. (*see note below) Here, they
say, too, is where Flavio
Gioia (c. 1300) invented the compass, or at
least improved upon the device borrowed from the Arabs.
(*See note below.)
The fortune of Amalfi
changed dramatically for the worse in the 1100s. Three
things happened. First, the powerful Normans, who would eventually
take over all of southern Italy to found the Kingdom of
Naples, took the city in 1131. With that, Amalfitan
independence ceased. Second, the town was sacked by the
maritime competition, Pisa, in 1135 and again in 1137.
Third, Amalfi failed to participate in the first
Crusade, leading further to its decline, and to the rise
of competing maritime republics in the north of Italy.
Somewhat later, in 1343, a powerful earthquake destroyed
the port of Amalfi, administering a belated coup de
grace to the once proud maritime power.
If you visit Amalfi
today, you can still see the ruins of what was the
largest naval shipyard in medieval Europe. As well, you
can visit a restored and functioning paper mill,
recalling the days when the Amalfitans took the art of
paper-making from the Arabs and made it their own,
turning out precious paper products for export
throughout the Mediterranean. The tradition of nostalgic
paper-making continues to this day, and you can buy
characteristic replicas of historic Amalfi letter paper,
cards, maps, etc. Also, the area—like much of southern
Italy—is marked by the presence of Saracen towers, built to guard
against incursions by the Arabs and, later, the Turks.
Worthy of attention in Amalfi is the Civic Museum, which
has the only remaining copy of the Amalfi Maritime Code,
mentioned above. (See 'new museum' note, below.)
The current accessibility of Amalfi by vehicular traffic is due to the road-building enthusiasm of Ferdinand II of Bourbon, King of Naples, in the mid-nineteenth century, who opened a road all along the Sorrentine peninsula and over to the Amalfi coast.
*note (Aug 2009) on Flavio Gioia: Alas, even “they say” may be too strong. Flavio Gioia, in spite of the nice statue in Amalfi (photo, right), most likely never existed. According to at least some modern sources, the confusion arises from the fact that the medieval historian, Flavio Biondo (Flavius Biondus) (1392-1463), reported the compass to be an invention of Amalfitans. That attribution was passed on as "a Flavio dicitur"—i.e. “as Flavius says”—Flavius, the historian, obviously. A comma then gets dropped in or moved, resulting in “a Flavio, dicitur,” attributing the invention “to Flavio, so they say.” At first, he was Flavio of Amalfi; then, for no reason that anyone seems to be able to figure out, the Neapolitan historian, Scipione Mazzella, said (around 1600) that Flavio was from the town of Gioia in Puglia. Thus, Flavio Gioia. But it's still a nice statue.
In any event, there are earlier references in Chinese and Arabic literature to compasses used for maritime navigation. It isn't clear whether the knowledge of the compass was passed to Europe from those sources or whether it arose independently. If, indeed, there ever was an Amalfitan invention of, or improvement on, the device remains unclear.
*Note on the Italian Maritime Republics. Amalfi was one of the four Maritime Republics of medieval Italy; the other three were Venice, Genova and Pisa. The modern Italian navy uses a display of the emblems of those four medieval republics on its flag (image, right): upper left, Venice is represented by the lion of St. Mark holding a sword; upper right is the red Greek cross (meaning that all arms of the cross are of equal length) of Genoa; lower left is the symbol of Amalfi, a Maltese cross; and lower right, a stylized cross bottony, with the points of the arms shaped like the architectural trefoil, representing Pisa.
add Apr 2012:
*Note on the Amalfi Maritime Code. It was also called the Tavole amalfitane, Tabula Amalphitana, or Tabula de Amalpha; Latin original: Capitula et ordinationes Curiae Maritimae nobilis civitatis Amalphe). The code regulated maritime traffic, commerce and specified how members of a crew were to behave in given circumstances, listing the rights and obligations of each crew member. The code is made up of 66 articles, called "chapters." The first 21, written in Latin, are the oldest and are dated from the 11th century. The remaining 45, written in vernacular, were added in the 13th century. The original text no longer exists, but there are extant later copies. In 1929, the Italian government purchased from Austria one of those copies said to have been the property of the Venetian Doge Marco Foscarini (doge in 1762-63). The Italian state then passed the copy to the city of Amalfi where it is has since been preserved in the civic museum in the city hall.
add June 2012:
New museum. As of 28 December 2010, Amalfi has a much-needed museum: The Museum of the Compass and the Maritime Duchy of Amalfi. The facility documents and illustrates the history of this ancient Maritime Republic; there are displays on the evolution of nautical navigational instruments as well as various artifacts and relics that go back to the founding of this City-State in 839, including a facsimile of the Tabula de Amalpha, the first code of Mediterranean maritime law There are exhibits of Roman and medieval sculpture, ancient parchments, codices and manuscripts, tufa statues, portraits of personages who have entered the ‘Mythology of Amalfi’, maps of the ancient Duchy of Amalfi, and artistic costumes for the Historical Regatta. The Museum is housed in the ancient Shipyard, the principal testimony of the maritime history of Amalfi.